New veterans in western Colorado: how to enter into the system
ENROLLING AT THE VA FOR HEALTH CARE
For the first three years after his forth exposure to an IED, Christopher Rupe, 31, was forced to medically retire from the U.S. Army; and he really didn’t think about using Veterans Administration services for his healthcare.
“Where I was living on the Front Range we didn’t have a VA clinic, and the military hospital was right there,” Rupe said. “It really wasn’t worth the drive to Denver.”
Even after Rupe moved to the Grand Valley in 2013, he still didn’t enroll for VA care until he needed medical care.
“Basically, life got in the way — moving, school, etc.,” he explained. “Then this summer I needed the medical care.”
Fortunately, Rupe said, enrollment for care was easy at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center.
“In a lot of ways, it was easier than getting into a normal civilian hospital like those I’d used in the past,” he noted.
As a young combat veteran who had left the service less than five years ago, and a medically retired soldier, Rupe qualified for VA care under at least two separate programs.
“I know a lot of younger veterans tend to avoid the VA because they see it as ‘old fashioned and out of date,’ but all the care I’ve gotten is comparable to what I’ve seen in the civilian world,” Rupe added.
A lot of younger veterans also see barriers when they look at the VA, he continued. They see the media reports and think it takes to long get the care they need.
“When I enrolled, I was told until I was assigned to a primary care team I could use the ER (emergency room) for anything I really needed,” Rupe said.
That included any mental-health issues that might come up.
Rupe said that while he found the paperwork to enroll fairly simple, he knows not every veteran qualifies for care as easily as he did.
“When you run into barriers, don’t just give up,” he said. “Find someone to help you look at all the angles.
“It might be a veteran service officer with one of the veterans’ organizations, a patient advocate or just another veteran who’s already been through the system and understands how it works, but don’t just give up.
“Be patient, and keep asking for assistance; just don’t be passive — but don’t be stupid and lose your temper with someone either.”
Another hint for younger veterans: Don’t believe anything you heard about the VA while in the military without checking the facts.
“When I got out, I was told, you don’t have to enroll, you just show up.”
Turns out, while getting into the VA was fairly easy for Rupe because of his medical retirement, it wasn’t as simple as just showing up. He did have to fill out some paperwork and ask for a provider.
Plus, asking for the first appointment is important because veterans who don’t check the block requesting the first available appointment are not contacted by the VA Medical Center. Veterans must call the medical center when they want their first appointment.
“I’ve been told that a lot of the older veterans have avoided enrolling with the VA because they think they’ll be taking space away from other veterans who need the health care; but I haven’t really heard that from any of the guys my age,” Rupe said. “It’s not true anyways. The VA is funded (and staffed) by how many veterans they see.”
According to Rupe, the best thing about using the VA is how they work with his schedule.
“In the civilian world they wouldn’t even consider that,” he said. “They give you your appointment date and time and you’re expected to be there.”
FILING FOR A SERVICE-CONNECTED DISABILITY
Two veterans, two entirely different experiences, are filing for their service-connected disabilities.
For Jason Brown, who left the Army in 2007, getting a rating for his SCD was almost a breeze.
Brown said he was in the right place at the right time.
“I was assigned to an ROTC command in a small town with a really dedicated veteran service officer,” he said.
According to Brown, he knew he had to get his medical records straight before he got out because trying to do it after he got out would have been nearly impossible.
“Everything just came together,” he added.
For Daniel Wettstein, who left the Army in 2013, things weren’t nearly so easy. His end of military service was very close to his last deployment and the command’s focus was on getting soldiers moved through the out-processing system. It wasn’t quite a pencil-whip process, but it was close.
“Then when I got out, life just got in the way,” he said. “I had plans to drive down to the VA (Medical Center), but never got the time. I was living in Carbondale and working long hours in Aspen.
“On top of that, when I was getting out I knew I had the new G.I. Bill, but didn’t have any idea about my other benefits.”
From the outside, the Department of Veterans Affairs looked like a huge monolithic bureaucracy where all the doors were closed, according to Wettstein.
“I knew there was the Department of Veterans Affairs, but I had no idea what they did,” he continued. “I got a lot of pamphlets when I got out, but didn’t really have any interest in reading through them at the time.”
A few months ago Wettstein met Lydia De La Rosa (Rocky Mountain Human Services) in Carbondale, and she helped him through the process.
“It was nice to have someone walk me through the paperwork,” he said.
Brown and Wettstein both emphasized that the key to success with SCD claims is getting the right help.
Terminology is vital to a good claim, according to Dave Dunnagan, Disabled American Veterans Grand Junction representative.
“I’d tell younger veterans who think they have a claim to go through the process,” Brown said. “For one thing, if you don’t use the system, it won’t be there when you need it.”
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